December 28, 2012

"You shall tell your son"

The other night, I was driving my son past our local "correctional facility", and he peppered me with various matter-of-fact questions, ending with whether I'd ever been inside a jail.

The easy part was telling him I had once been inside a jail in Washington, DC, a long time ago. The harder part was explaining to a seven-year-old who takes globalization and his own Jewish identity for granted, that just 25 years ago the world was a very different place. My son has seen me off to Moscow on routine business travel, and here I was telling him that Jewish children in Russia were once forbidden from keeping the Sabbath and studying Torah or learning Hebrew -- not in some ancient Greco-Syrian occupation thousands of years ag
o a la Hanukkah, or in Pharaoh's Egypt, but in his own father's lifetime.

I told my son how I stood with others opposite the Soviet ("Russian") Embassy while the Russian leader was visiting Washington, and spoke out on behalf of our fellow Jews who were denied even the right to emigrate. I felt we had to do whatever we could. "Aba, what's an Embassy?" Insert primer on normative diplomacy...

It was illegal to demonstrate so close to a foreign embassy, so we knew we would be arrested. They took us away in a school bus, though it wasn't painted yellow. "How long did you stay in jail?" We were held for the whole afternoon until we were brought into court and the judge released us, but the police treated us very well.

"Did you stay with the other people in the jail?" We had our own cell, with bars, and we could see and hear the other prisoners. We had the opportunity to do something so people would know -- and the Russian "President" would see -- that we cared about the Jews in Russia. Unlike most of those other prisoners, and unlike the Jews in Russia, I was free to go home that same night.

After some moments of silence from the back seat, I asked my son how this makes him feel: "Amazed."

December 26, 2012

Negotiating with Hamas, but for the wrong reason?

Whether to advance a peace agreement leading to a Palestinian state or to consolidate the status quo, an Israeli government will probably be talking to Hamas before too long.

Twenty years ago, Israeli law prohibited any Israeli citizen from contact with the Palestine Liberation. As Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir put it, talking to the PLO would lead to the unacceptable establishment of a Palestinian state. And center-left politicians, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres agreed. So when Rabin became the PM and Peres his Foreign Minister, they pursued indirect contacts with the PLO precisely because they had realized that a separate Palestinian state was indispensable to Israel's long-term stability.

Today, the idea of "a PLO state bordering Israel" sounds pretty bad, but it remains the official preference of the Government of Israel... even if the actions of Israel's current leadership seem to be making that outcome progressively less likely. When President Ronald Reagan authorized the U.S. Government to talk directly with the PLO 24 years ago, the PLO was still on the State Department's list of Foreign Terror Organizations -- as is Hamas today.

But it was still the Cold War, PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met the specific conditions the United States had pledged to Israel, and Vice-President George H.W. Bush had already won the election to succeed the departing Reagan. There was little Israel or American Jewish organizations could do beyond calling for strict controls. Within five years, partly thanks to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and serious strong-arming by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Bush administration helped set the stage for the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Today, the memory of Hamas terror is constantly refreshed by new attacks on Israeli civilians, and Hamas leaders speak regularly of destroying Israel. The PLO once acted the same way, and that bitter legacy will never be erased. And yet, the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO, and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is generally seen as the best chance for a moderate Palestinian leader willing to make a final deal with Israel.

December 18, 2012

Some Jews don't like Chuck Hagel... so?

President Obama has just won re-election. As some Republican Senators have acknowledged, "elections have consequences." One consequence of this election was that, despite the best efforts of Jewish Republicans in and out of community leadership roles, the President won a healthy margin of the Electoral College -- so the pro-Netanyahu wing of the pro-Israel (Jewish) community has political credibility issues. Plus the President showed unflinching solidarity (including Iron Dome) with Israel during last month's Gaza conflict with Hamas.

I do not know if Chuck Hagel would be the best choice for Secretary of Defense, but barring any major disclosures or failings, that choice is the President's to make. A Vietnam veteran and former Republican Senator, Hagel is widely respected in military and policy circles, and his professional qualifications seem fine. The Senate Republicans already forced out the President's putative nominee for Secretary of State, Susan Rice, and stopping one of their own former colleagues now would be  bit much. This is not going to be an easy fight, especially if it's on behalf of an ally that's already getting too much play in Washington politics.

A winning strategy for Jewish leaders is ideally to be part of the solution, and not to pick fights with Presidents unless Israel's survival is directly threatened. The best case against Hagel seems to be that he's not a bleeding-heart Zionist; he supports U.S. engagement on Mideast peace; he was one of the few Senators who routinely avoided signing onto pro forma "Dear Colleague" letters in support of Israeli interests; and, the same people who slam President Obama's positions on Israel also slam Hagel.

Interestingly, the Jewish establishment leaped to support Susan Rice, however briefly, because she has been so stalwart in support of Israel as the President's Ambassador to the United Nations. Many were concerned when she was first nominated four years ago, because her worldview seemed closer to all those leftists calling on Israel to get with the 21st century, drop all the nationalism sentiment, and cut a quick deal with the Palestinians. So maybe her eyes were opened, or maybe she was serving President Obama and advancing HIS agenda. I would expect a Secretary Hagel to do no less.

Defense cooperation with Israel is better than ever. Ever. We're still taking casualties in Afghanistan and fighting a global commando war against Al Qaeda. I voted for Barack Obama last month, and so did most Americans -- and two-thirds of Jews -- who went to the polls. Standing in the way of his nominee because he's not Joe Lieberman is just a bad idea, and one my Jewish Republican friends are eagerly pushing.

December 17, 2012

Post-Sandy Hook, GOP can lead, follow, or disappear

A couple of years back, I blogged about the GOP's craven transformation of once non-partisan issues into partisan wedge issues. Gun control was number-one, followed by the environment, immigration, civil rights, and campaign finance reform. Recently, the more Congressional Republicans push their partisan buttons on basic common-sense issues, the more they lose at the voting booth and in demographic projections of party allegiance.

This is good news, not because Democrats are more deserving than Republicans, but because in the end America needs practical solutions. The unspeakable tragedy that occurred last Friday may finally pull us -- and even the Republican Party -- back from the brink of the gun lobby's stranglehold on even basic measures like uniform background checks and a general ban on assault weapons. If the GOP maintains its blanket opposition to any further gun restrictions, that will further exacerbate its own failure to relate to the majority of Americans, even many of its own supporters.

If, with President Obama's leadership on the issue, our nation can succeed on gun control, we might have enough momentum to apply people power against well-organized big money in the other areas as well. It is too late to avert widespread environmental catastrophe during the 21st century, but it is never too late to start instituting serious emission controls and other regulations and incentives to minimize the kind devastation and dislocation that scientific consensus has been predicting for years.

Either the GOP joins up, or it continues its long-term decline as a political force -- analogous to the resulting inevitability of climate change. But we must succeed in addressing these issues regardless. And either way, our children and our grandchildren will be a little less disadvantaged. In the meantime, I'm taking my kids to visit glaciers before it really is too late.

December 14, 2012

Israeli Foreign Minister's audacity of dope

[Just after posting this, I heard that Minister Lieberman is resigning in the face of a criminal indictment... but the Czechoslovakia argument remains a common refrain among right-wing Israelis. And Lieberman will probably get re-elected in the January 22 elections and remain a force in the Knesset.]

Regarding concessions to the Palestinians, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week that European governments must know that Israel "will not be a second Czechoslovakia." Really??

The Foreign Minister's umbrage aside, his choice of analogy was truly baffling. Czechoslovakia, after all, was a weak, artificial proto-state, formed out of the negative space after World War I obliterated the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1939, Adolf Hitler forcibly ANNEXED the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, claiming it as a German heartland. At the now-infamous Munich conference, the European powers effective handed the Sudetenland over to Adolf Hitler, the regional juggernaut, in a failed bid to placate Germany's lust for conquest. Over the months that followed, it became evident that the appeasement of Munich was the international community's gateway to the Holocaust.

Since 1967, Israel has used similar terminology and actions by "annexing" East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Right-wing Israeli politicians have perennially called for "annexing" all or part of the West Bank, pointing to the large Jewish settler population as a justification. And if there is a regional hegemon today, based on military and economic might, it is Israel and not the Palestinians.

So... If we're applying the Munich-Czechoslovakia model to Israel and the West Bank, who would be Czechoslovakia and who would be Hitler? The perverse answer to such a question is why it's so shocking that any Israeli politician would apply the Czechoslovakia model. Israel is NOT the Third Reich, so why use an example where the aggressor was a powerful country annexing lands where its people are settled, at the expense of the weaker rump state?

There are many valid arguments for why Europeans should be more supportive of Israel and harder on the Palestinians, especially the terrorist elements. But "Czechoslovakia" is nothing but a shrill play of the Holocaust card, hoping that no one will notice it is utter nonsense. So far, especially with Israeli elections a few weeks down the road, that bet is paying off.

December 13, 2012

Iran's sense of vulnerability casts a wide net

The Gulf expects more from the United States, and less from Iran. Surprised?

On the military side, admirals and generals want to know our plans and protocols for managing the threat from Iran, on tactical as well as strategic levels. Politically, diplomats and bloggers alike blame us for letting Mubarak fall in favor of the new Islamist Pharaoh, Mohamed Morsi. On Syria, opinion is divided on whether the United States ought to directly intervene militarily or simply provide advanced weapons to the rebels. But then maybe, judging from the current blowback on Morsi and his ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, we should be stepping in to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad... Stability vs. democracy, or secular vs. religious autocracy.

Reflecting the outdated relevance of Wikileaks, Gulf regimes are no longer itching for a U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Instead, they are acutely aware that if Iran gets lucky with just one anti-ship mine, all oil shipments will come to a standstill. The closer Iran gets to achieving "breakout" capacity, or to crossing one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ever-shifting "red lines", the more regional leaders understand that neither diplomatic nor military options promise an easy resolution. And once again, regardless of the nuclear file, Iran's ongoing opportunism is evident in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and potentially Bahrain. The regime in Tehran is as happy to take advantage of popular Arab unrest as it was to seize full control of Abu Musa from the United Arab Emirates 20 years ago (or to regain its former sovereignty, according to the Iranians).

For all their defiance and bluster, Iranians remain concerned about their own rights to security and national self-defense: The entire punitive premise of international nuclear negotiators and the sanctions backing them up leaves Iranians feeling humiliated and cornered. This is not merely posturing -- it's a genuine feeling.

I do not discount Iran's violation of international treaties and conventions on the transparency and verifiability of its nuclear program, nor its propensity to support terrorism and undermine diplomatic solutions, especially where the Israelis and Palestinians are concerned. Sure, Iran is responsible for its current dilemma. But so long as Iran feels deep down that its very sovereignty and survival are being threatened, it is unlikely to willingly give up what has become its nuclear insurance policy.

While the West cannot afford to back down, it is increasingly likely that Iran will nevertheless succeed in attaining nuclear weapons capacity within the next five years. Leveraging the existing and future sanctions and other measures, it may be possible to fashion a process and terms of reference that acknowledge and allay Iranian fears and also establish a framework for taking the centrifuges off line.

An Iran that WANTS to own nuclear weapons can potentially be deterred. An Iran that feels it NEEDS to own nuclear weapons will be truly dangerous and unpredictable. If our efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran are able to address both points, we just might succeed in the short term and also open the door to a long-term process of normalization.

December 8, 2012

"Ilaynaa?" This is us you're talking to...

This year's Manama Dialogue, back after skipping last year amid Bahrain's internal strife, has produced some notable public statements and many private conversations. There's a tremendous degree of up-to-the-tweet knowledge and keen interest about what's going on in Washington, not to mention around the Middle East. The U.S. and other delegations have been delivering alternate doses of reality and humility to the mostly Arab participants -- government and military officials, as well as media and policy experts. [I am here again as a grateful guest of Bahrain's Foreign Ministry.]

So far, the most audacious statements have come from Qatar's foreign minister, who suggested to the audience that Syria's rebel forces could use MANPADS (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles) to secure a no-fly zone. He dismissed concerns that such weapons finding their way out of the country and into the hands of terrorists, as happened in Libya: Syria is different, because its neighbors are all secure and stable!! Who knew...

The cheekiest question from the floor was addressed to the U.S. delegation by a drôle Brit (who else?): "How long are the American people prepared to continue to bankroll the security of Chinese oil supplies?" Ouch.

Senator John McCain delivered a strong case for greater U.S. leadership and involvement in the region, including military intervention in Syria and more engagement and democracy-building on the ground in Libya. As a reflection of Washington's complicated politics, the Senator has recently devoted much of his time to assailing the Obama administration for the attack that killed four Americans in Libya, who were there precisely as part of the President's commitment to engage Libyans and help them build a democratic society.

Generally, there was little emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian issue this time, whereas two years ago Jordan's King Abdullah made that the focus of his speech here. The curtain-raiser was a panel on Syria, which included a leader of the Syrian opposition, and only at the very end, China's Middle East envoy threw in -- non sequitur -- that the Palestinian issue remains the biggest problem in the Middle East. No doubt, our Syrian friend got home safely by now...

Beyond Syria, Egypt remains a major item on the Manama agenda. It looks like some of the Egyptian delegation failed to make the trip after all, including the General who heads "Crisis Management" for the Egyptian Armed Forces. The second day's sessions concluded before the news of Egyptian President Morsi's scaling back much of his decree for unchecked power, which may mean the restrained U.S. response to that crisis actually worked -- let's see what the buzz is on Sunday...

There is ambient frustration with the U.S. Government over the sense that Washington has withdrawn from the Middle East, including from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, exhausted as we are from waging two major wars in this region and now peering over The Fiscal Cliff. 

While conspicuously omitting America from the list of nations that were helpful to Bahrain through its recent turmoil, Crown Prince Salman's keynote did give a little pitch (or dig) for us to get "the state of Israel" back into negotiations. In other words, while according Israel all due legitimacy, His Royal Highness asks if Washington can maybe do one little bit of heavy lifting once and for all. With flag officers in the room, of course, it's also hard to forget that Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the waters of the Gulf and Straits of Hormuz among other strategically vital sectors. Let's just say, both parties benefit from the arrangement. And as it happened, Senator McCain was late arriving from Kuwait, so he was not in the room for this royal treatment.

More significantly, the Crown Prince emphasized and acknowledged the trauma his country has endured since our 2010 session, with many mistakes by the authorities that need to be addressed and corrected going forward. In this, his speech was not so much PROMISING a "new Middle East" as DELIVERING it in substance. Time will tell as to implementation and fulfillment, but it was no ordinary speech. And he predicted more substantive announcements in the coming days.

Picking up on the Crown Prince's appeal, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called on the United States to re-engage Israel and the Palestinians before time really runs out. He framed his entire speech within a spirit of humility, noting he is "not a citizen of the Middle East" and therefore not prepared to lecture Middle Easterners about their own region. Obviously, his most immediate concern was the situation in Syria, and there was much deliberation throughout the sessions about the efficacy of internal resistance and outside diplomacy, and heated calls for military intervention, with or without waiting for the Assad regime to deploy chemical weapons (and with or without Russia's imprimatur). Military and security experts were also confident they can secure Syria's weapons stockpiles once Assad is gone. If...

Hague and the Americans -- and the Saudis -- paid special attention to Iran's role in the region, as well as its nuclear program. As we take on the progress and challenges of a "new" Middle East, it's also sobering that the region's two biggest flash points are Egypt and Syria. A half-century ago, these two key Arab nations were briefly united into one country by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who heralded a new kind of pan-Arab Middle East. Nasser's promise largely failed, and today we face new and distinct changes, risks and potential in both countries, with consequences for the entire Middle East and beyond.

December 7, 2012

Arab Spring overplayed & underestimated

This week, as I made my way to the region, I've been following the dramatic downturn of democratic governance in Egypt. A few initial thoughts before I hear more informed  perspectives:


While President Morsi's Mubarak-esque combination of autocratic proclivities and astounding detachment from reality are deeply alarming, the Egyptian people are again rising up in protest. So, the biggest beneficiary and hallmark of the "Arab Spring" is proving to be More Of the Same, but the democratic spirit of the movement -- the citizens themselves -- is unabated. They still expect functional, legitimate democracy, whether from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood or someone else. And anyway, few reputable analysts were banking on Morsi's prospects as a democratic visionary. But elections do have consequences, especially when they're held too early.


We need to excise Morsi as the face of the Arab Spring, lest his blowout come to symbolize the whole Arab Spring. If Egypt's experiment fails, this by itself does not prove the Arab Spring was a ruse or a mirage -- as some of my fellow American observers have been blogging in recent days. Owing to its size, intellectual history and strategic importance, Egypt easily took first place as the symbol of the Arab Spring. Egypt may still prove to be the big test of this sweeping movement, yet other countries are also processing their own versions. 

Tunisia, where the democratic tide started last year, is showing the kind of measured progress that Western news anchors take for granted, and thus makes for few headlines. Despite continued uncertainty, including the recent Benghazi attack that killed four Americans including the U.S. Ambassador, Libyans remain optimistic and supportive of their new democratic-trending government. 

In Bahrain, last year's protests and the ensuing crackdown were largely limited in time and scope. The grievances remain and will need to be addressed one way or another, but this is not the garden-variety Arab Spring, especially since Bahrain is sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia -- two of the least democratic regimes in the region. 

Syria's Assad regime is holding fast, for now, amid popular unrest and armed rebellion. Much will depend on Bashar Assad's individual mindset: He could hold out until the end, leave town just after his kids open their Christmas presents, or start using chemical weapons against his own citizens. That third option could provide a casus belli for U.S.-NATO intervention, which will horribly escalate the violence but may also end the dictatorship and keep Iran out of the post-Assad politics.


The role of non-Arab states within the Middle East will also help determine the direction of political change in the region. Iran's support for Assad and its opportunistic use of Morsi's election in Egypt have been a negative influence on the Arab Spring, and should inspire greater resolve by reformers rather than a Western retreat. Turkey, once the moderate Muslim referee, needs to regain its composure and recapture its influence with Egypt and Syria in particular. Its recent military counter-attacks on Syria, its second fiddle at Morsi's Gaza cease-fire negotiations and the angry posturing against Israel are keeping the Islamist government from realizing its potential as mediator and guarantor among its neighbors.

The Arab Spring is definitely incomplete, even dangerous in spots. But this is the Middle East, after all. And the story remains unfinished and -- in too many cases -- untold. Instead of dismissing the significance or permanence of the democratic moment, Westerners should be joining with Arabs and others to see where and why the Arab Spring is faltering, and what we can do together to facilitate real, measurable and even lasting results.

December 3, 2012

The four-state solution and other realities

The greatest irony of the past week has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that the United Nations vote to upgrade Palestine's observer status was a unilateral action that undermines negotiations for a two-state solution. Netanyahu's response to such unilateralism was to announce his own unilateral move that specifically undermines a two-state solution: authorizing settlement construction to connect Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, which would effectively split the West Bank in half. The four-state solution would be Israel, Gaza, West Bank north, and West Bank south. Now who's undermining whom?

The main takeaway from this should be that the current Israeli government is in no way committed to a two-state solution, or to meaningful negotiations. This should come as no surprise to anyone, including most Israelis of any bandwidth. Every time Netanyahu calls for a return to negotiations, he or his underlings manage to take some unilateral action of their own, usually relating to growing Israel's West Bank settlements or neighborhoods within the ever-expanding definition of "Jerusalem".

Regardless of one's preferred path or destination, several myths deserve to be discontinued:


Both Palestinians and Israelis are engaged in unilateral actions. The main differences are that Palestinian unilateralism tends to manifest periodically at the diplomatic level. Israeli unilateralism is evident on the ground and continues every day, via security checkpoints, ongoing construction projects, and restrictions on Palestinian economic activity. Justified or not, these are all unilateral actions, and not the subject of bilateral negotiations or agreement. And like it or not, going to the UN may interfere with the very hypothetical potential for direct negotiations, but it's hard to call anything garnering the support of 138 governments entirely "unilateral". (For better or worse, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was a completely unilateral decision.)


There's nothing wrong with having preconditions for negotiations, as long as we are all open about their existence. Both sides have preconditions, and it's a stretch to suggest otherwise. Israel's calls for Abbas to return to the table without preconditions ring hollow when -- in the same breath -- we are told he must first recognize Israel as a "Jewish state". No other entity in the world has had to make such a declaration as a condition for negotiations, full diplomatic relations or even military alliance with Israel, and until the past year this was never even stated vis-a-vis the Palestinians. (Just weeks ago, on Israeli television, Abbas himself ruled out a Palestinian return to pre-1967 Israel.) But it is definitely a precondition, no less than the Palestinian insistence that Israel forswear further settlement growth while negotiations are underway. When Hamas and Fatah seemed close to reconciling their differences last year, Israel revived one of its old preconditions, that any such union must reaffirm the core principles, including renouncing terror and accepting Israel's right to exist (as a Jewish state or not). 


Netanyahu's response to what he termed the undermining of the two-state solution was to... undermine the two state solution. Expanding or initiating new settlements anywhere but the area known as "E1" area might be seen as a counter-productive but proportional response to the upgrading of Palestinian status at the UN. But by announcing construction that merges the Edumim settlements bloc with Jerusalem -- while cutting off the provisional Palestinian capital of Ramallah and the northern West Bank (Biblical Samaria) from the south (Biblical Judea) -- Netanyahu is expressly writing off any interest in the increasingly anachronistic "two-state solution" involving Israel and a viable Palestinian state.


Hamas terrorism, including the massive missile barrage against Israel's civilian population, must be denounced and punished. But intentionally or not, one effect of Israeli retaliation is to bolster Hamas among Palestinians, at the expense of Abbas. Israel's reaction to the UN vote is a case in point. One of the more valid arguments against the Palestinian status upgrade was the absence of Palestinian consensus over who is the rightful representative -- can Abbas truly claim to represent all Palestinians when he comes to the UN, or when/if he sits down with Netanyahu at the negotiating table? That said, if Israel's right-wing coalition government had any interest in a negotiated agreement, wouldn't it try to find ways of making it easier for Abbas to negotiate, instead of making it harder at every turn? Hamas is a useful excuse, and one that keeps benefiting from each setback.

Personally, I find it much easier, and more effective, to explain Israeli actions as simply a popular decision by a right-wing government, representing a right-shifted population that has lost hope in the prospect of peace; since long before last week, the average Israeli would literally laugh at the idea that the Oslo Accords were anything but a failure, so why pretend they still care about preserving or fulfilling Oslo? Arguing that Netanyahu actually wants to negotiate a realistic two-state solution, without preconditions; that Israel eschews unilateral actions; that Israel has no partner for negotiations -- this should be insulting to most people who have an understanding of the issue. Those making such claims come off as either dishonest or naive. And it does not help Israel advance its case to anyone who's not already convinced.